Logan, a visitor at the Bohart Museum of Entomology's recent open house on spiders and other arachnids, wowed the crowd with his knowledge of scorpions.
“Logan is only in kindergarten but he was showing his mom our arachnid drawer and describing the differences between the Emperor Scorpion, Pandinus imperator, and the Dictator Scorpion, Pandinus dictator,” said Bohart associate and scorpion scientist Wade Spencer, an undergraduate student at Bohart Museum. “Thankfully, he wasn't at all shy when I asked him to repeat what he had just said to the crowd.”
“He loved sharing his knowledge with those interested,” Spencer said. “And his mom is an arachnid saint as she supports his endeavors even while she still gets the willies from just looking at them. She told me she finds it important to keep her cool so that he may never lose his enthusiasm.”
The Bohart Museum's three-hour open house included a presentation on spiders by Jason Bond, the Evert and Marion Schlinger Endowed Chair in Insect Systematics, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. Scientists in both the Bond lab and the Bohart lab led arachnid activities, including "Eat Like a Spider" and "Catch a Moth."
Spencer and fellow Bohart associate and entomology undergraduate student Lohit Garikipati, tabled the scorpion display. The guests asked questions, gingerly touched them, and took cell phone photos.
Spencer currently has 37 scorpions of various species. Scorpions are venomous, not poisonous, he pointed out. As Professor Bond said in his talk: "Poisonous is what you eat it make you sick. Venomous means it takes toxin and it injects it into you."
"Fun fact about scorpions, Spencer said, "is that all of them are safe to eat as none of them are poisonous (toxins ingested or absorbed), but all of them (as far as we know) are venomous (containing poison(s) which are injected by some means)."
"I use the term 'medically significant' because it has the most potent venoms we know of, but I refrain and even discourage the use of the term 'dangerous' when describing scorpions and other venomous creatures," Spencer said. "It's often our own carelessness which makes them dangerous. If you live in in scorpion country, shake out your boots if you leave them outside and buy a $20 UV flashlight on Amazon. Those are simple ways to detect them and avoid being stung."
Spencer said he handles "my little Leiurus q. to show just how gentle and adorable she is so that people can have visual confirmation to back my claim that there is no such thing as a dangerous scorpion--though it should be clear I am not saying they're cuddly or friendly like a puppy. I advocate for them to be treated with caution and respect.
The UC Davis student attributes his interest in scorpions to his great-grandmother.
"My great-grandmother would always take me on afternoon picnics in the Big Tujunga Canyon Wash, a mostly dry river bed in the San Gabriel mountains in my home town of Sunland. She was a naturalist at heart and taught me about the native plants, geology, birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and my favorite: the bugs. If ever we encountered a scorpion, she would stop and show me, but wouldn't kill them. Instead, starting when I was 3, she taught me that they were nothing to fear and showed me how to gently handle them. I've handled thousands ever since and not once been stung."
"I'm often asked why I'm not stung, and my response is always the same: 'It's not a cat!' By that, I mean, there's no risk of it randomly attacking me. I have scars all over my body from dogs and cats."
Spencer loves scorpions for three primary reasons:
- "Knowing their ancestors were the first animals on land about 450 million years ago."
- "Many of their venoms are being studied for use in shrinking brain tumors, sending fluorescent dyes to tumors with such specificities as to view 200 cancerous cell clusters--whereas MRIs can view 500,000 cell clusters. And some--to regulate insulin, treat arthritis, and antimicrobial components--have been used in mice with MRSA (methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureas), completely curing them in 4 days."
- "Working with them directly and seeing how many people we have helped get over their fears has me simply head-over-heels for them."
The scorpion display drew the interest of adults and children alike. Three Brownie Girl Scouts from Vacaville giggled and comforted one another when they experienced the "Virtual Reality Spiders" demonstration conducted by medical entomologist Geoffrey Attardo, assistant professor, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. But not so the scorpion display.
"When it came to the live stuff, the girls (Kendl Macklin, 7, Jayda Navarette, 8, and Keira Yu, 8) were more calm than nervous," said Spencer, adding "I thanked them for their bravery and showing the adults that there was nothing to fear."
The Bohart Museum, directed by Lynn Kimsey, UC Davis professor of entomology, is located in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building on Crocker Lane. It houses nearly 8 million insect specimens, a gift shop, and a live "petting zoo" of Madagascar hissing cockroaches, stick insects or walking sticks, and tarantulas. The insect museum is open to the public Monday through Thursday, from 9 a.m. to noon, and from 1 to 5 p.m.
But did you know that scorpions are the oldest living terrestrial arthropods on the planet--that they're approximately 400 million years old? And that these "living fossils" were here before the dinosaurs?
And, did you also know that scorpions are the only arachnids that give birth to live young?
All fascinating facts.
Scorpion scientist Lauren Esposito of the California Academy of Sciences, will reveal those facts--and much more--when she discusses her research at the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology seminar on Wednesday, Feb. 27.
Esposito, assistant curator and Schlinger chair of Arachnology at the California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, will speak on "Evolution of New World Scorpions and Their Venom" from 4:10 to 5 p.m. in 122 Briggs Hall. Host is Jason Bond, Evert and Marion Schlinger Endowed Chair in Insect Systematics, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.
Scorpions are just about everywhere; they're found on every continent except Antarctica. In fact, they're found in every ecosystem on the planet, from cave systems below sea level to the peaks of the Alps and the Andes, Esposito says. Although scientists have described 2,200 species of scorpions, Esposito estimates that this number encompasses only 60 percent of the group's total diversity. In her research, she's trying to fill in that taxonomic gap.
Scorpions first drew Esposito's interest in her childhood. Both her parents are biologists. She remembers visiting her grandparents on a remote island in the Bahamas. “The most dangerous things on the island were ants and scorpions, so it was a pretty ideal place for a child to explore,” she quips on the Cal Academy website.
Esposito served a summer undergraduate internship in arachnology at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), and did volunteer work at a field station in the Chihuahuan Desert. She returned to AMNH to complete her doctorate in arachnology, and then completed a postdoctoral fellowship studying the biogreography of scorpions in the Caribbean. In 2015, she accepted an arachnologist position at the Cal Academy.
"For the past several years, Esposito has studied the evolution and geographical distribution of scorpions in the Caribbean," according to the Cal Academy website. "She suspects the string of islands played a significant but underappreciated role in producing the biodiversity currently found in North and South America. Because scorpions are essentially 'living fossils,' they're ideal organisms to study to decipher this larger relationship. Understanding the biodiversity of this region in a time of rapid agricultural development is a key step toward sustaining it for sustaining it for future generations."
Esposito marvels that a single scorpion "can carry the genes for more than 200 unique venoms in its DNA." She describes those venom varieties as "like protein cocktails, mixed to affect specific mammals, insects, and crustaceans."
“Researchers think that scorpions eject venoms with different compositions depending on the scenario," she says. "If they encounter a predator, they'll eject one combination, and if they encounter prey, a different one.” The venom's effects? Pain, temporary paralysis, or death.
Esposito focuses her research on the evolution of scorpion venom alongside the evolution of scorpions. This makes her unique among venom experts, who are often toxicologists or biochemists studying its chemistry, according to the Cal Academy website.
“Looking at how this venom diversity evolved helps us understand how one creature can evolve the ability to strike hundreds of specific targets,” explains Esposito. “There's a kind of evolutionary arms race happening between scorpions and mammals, particularly with predatory, nocturnal scorpion mice.”
Cal Academy's YouTube video on The Anamolies: Venom Race points out that although "the stings of most scorpions are harmless to humans, a select few can be fatal. Striped bark scorpions, a group of species found in the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico, inflict on average 100,000 stings and, until recently, caused more than a thousand deaths each year in Mexico alone. While finding a treatment to this public health concern has been a driving force behind studies of bark scorpion venom, there was one very basic question that had scientists scratching their heads: Why and how would such a tiny creature pack such a lethal punch? Now, researchers, including Lauren Esposito, curator of Arachnology at the California Academy of Sciences, think they've found the answers in the interplay between a diminutive but dauntless predator—a mouse that has a particular taste for these venomous invertebrates—and the scorpions' own genetic makeup."
Check out these other incredible videos on the Cal Academy website:
Medical entomologist Geoffrey Attardo, assistant professor, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, coordinates the weekly seminars.
Hamilton will be at the 142nd annual Dixon May Fair on Friday, May 12.
Not the crowd-pleasing Broadway musical, but a crowd-pleasing scorpion named Hamilton, a resident of the UC Davis Bohart Museum of Entomology. He's owned by Bohart Museum associate Wade Spencer, a UC Davis student majoring in entomology.
Spencer will be bringing Hamilton, as well as his scorpion named Celeste, to the Dixon May Fair's Floriculture Building on Friday afternoon for fairgoers to see and photograph (but not to hold; they're venomous).
Throughout the four-day fair, May 11-14, the Bohart Museum will be showcasing 17 drawers of "Oh My" insect specimens in the Floriculture Building. Scientists will be showing live critters and chatting with fairgoers on two days: Friday, May 12 (1 to 6 p.m.) and on Saturday, May 13 (noon to 5 p.m.)
The live critters? They're part of the Bohart Museum's popular "petting zoo," which includes Madagascar hissing cockroaches and walking sticks. Fairgoers can hold and photograph them.
On Saturday, May 13, entomologist and educator Jeff Smith, curator of the butterfly and moth specimens at the Bohart, will be bringing part of his global insect collection of specimens. He and other scientists also will staff the live petting zoo of Madagascar hissing cockroaches and walking sticks on Saturday.
Tabatha Yang, the Bohart Museum's education and outreach coordinator, said the 17 drawers of insect specimens spotlight bees, aquatic insects, camouflaged insects, phasmids/mantids, predators/parasitoids, sexual dimorphism, fly-fishing, entomophagy (consumption of insects and arachnids), common California insect pests, leg diversity (Harlequin beetle as center), wing diversity (moth-based), mimicry, orchid pollinators, Hemiptera/Odonata (think dragonflies), cockroaches, and butterflies.
The Bohart display is just one part of the scores of exhibits in the Floriculture Building, organized by superintendent Dave Hutson of Vacaville, a 10-year UC Master Gardener. Exhibits include colorful bee and butterfly motifs.
Elsewhere on the fairgrounds, exhibitors are showing other insect-themed work, such as the scorpion sculpture crafted by Roberto Ortiz of the Dixon FFA. It's displayed in the Youth Building.
Over in the Livestock Barn, you can see Buggy, owned by Sophia DeTomasi, 10, of the Vaca Valley 4-H Club, Vacaville. Buggy, however, is not an insect--it's a fine-looking 275-pound Berkshire hog that Sophia raised. The origin of the name? Sophia's family fondly calls her "Buggy" and she's passed the moniker on to her 4-H project. Buggy shares a pen with a hog named Bea, raised by Sophia's sister, Toni.
Theme of the 142nd annual Dixon May Fair is "Farm to Fair." It's also known as the 36th Agricultural District, the oldest district fair and fairgrounds in the state of California. The fair supports the communities of Dixon, Vacaville, Fairfield, Rio Vista, Elmira, Woodland and Davis, according to chief executive officer Patricia Conklin. The grounds are located at 655 S. First St., Dixon. (For the schedule of events, access thewebsite.)
The Bohart Museum, founded in 1946 and directed by Lynn Kimsey, UC Davis professor of entomology, is located in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building on Crocker Lane, UC Davis campus. It houses a global collection of nearly eight million insect specimens, plus the live petting zoo and a year-around gift shop. The Bohart Museum is open to the public Mondays through Thursdays.
Have you heard about the entomologist who went from researching venomous scorpions to alleviating human neuropathic pain?
That would be Bora Inceoglu, who holds a doctorate in entomology from the University of California, Davis. He and five colleagues were recently informed that their groundbreaking research on neuropathic pain made Discover magazine's Top 100 Science Stories of 2015. In fact, the research ranks among the Top 15 in the Medicine/Genetics category.
The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published the UC Davis research, “Endoplasmic Reticulum Stress in the Peripheral Nervous System is a Significant Driver of Neuropathic Pain,” in July 2015. (See UC Davis news story)
Inceoglu, a researcher in the Bruce Hammock lab, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology/UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, and Ahmed Bettaieb, then of the Fawaz Haj lab, Department of Nutrition, served as the lead researchers. The six-member team, in addition to Inceoglu, Bettaieb, Haj, and Hammock, included K.S. Lee and Carlos Trindade da Silva, both of the Department of Entomology and Nematology/UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center.
They pinpointed the key mechanism that causes neuropathic pain--a complex, chronic and difficult-to-treat pain caused by nerve injuries from trauma or from such diseases as diabetes, shingles, multiple sclerosis and stroke.
Discover magazine headlined its story on the UC Davis research: “A Key Piece of the Pain Puzzle Is Solved.” Writer Heather Stringer quoted Hammock as saying: “Medications have historically focused on turning down the nerve response to pain, but now we've found one way to block the stress signal that generates the pain.
“Most of us probably take for granted that physical pain—whether it be from a sports injury, a kidney stone or appendicitis—can be attributed to some form of inflammation and that it will end,” Stringer wrote.
“Neuropathic pain, however, affords its sufferers no such luxuries,” Stringer pointed out. “It's chronic and unrelenting, and its cause is unknown, making treatment difficult. It turns out that neuropathic pain is triggered when the body experiences endoplasmic reticulum (ER) stress, a condition in which the production and transport of protein exceeds the cells' capacities, say researchers from the University of California, Davis. Because diabetics are at high risk of having neuropathic pain, the team studied diabetic rats that had neuropathic symptoms: hypersensitivity to touch and lack of heat sensation. And the rats' nerve cells showed clear signs of ER stress.”
“When the researchers treated the rats with a compound that blocks ER stress, the pain symptoms disappeared. Conversely, healthy rats developed neuropathy when they received chemicals that induce the stress response.”
How It All Began
Hammock discovered a human enzyme termed sEH which regulates a new class of natural chemical mediators. He and his lab then developed inhibitors of the sEH enzyme which degrades natural mediators reducing hypertension, inflammation and pain.
Recently he founded the company, Eicosis LLC, to target diabetic neuropathic pain. The company just received two large federal grants for translational drug development and aims to move one of the sEH inhibitors to human clinical trials.
Hammock, who holds a doctorate in entomology/toxicology from UC Berkeley in 1973, joined the UC Davis entomology faculty in 1980. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors. The Hammock lab is the 30-year home of the UC Davis/NIEHS Superfund Research and Training Program, an interdisciplinary program funded by the National Institute of Environmental Sciences (NIEHS) that has brought in almost $60 million to the UC Davis campus. The Hammock lab is also the home of the NIH Training Grant in Biomolecular Technology. The lab alumni, totaling more than 100 graduates, hold positions of distinction in academia, industry and government as well as over 300 postdoctorates.
From Insects to Humans
How did Bora Inceoglu move from entomology to neuropathic pain?
"As most kids I found insect fascinating from the start, little machines that could do so much," he said. "As an undergraduate, I studied plant protection. Half of the curriculum was basic and applied entomology, the other half being plant pathology and weed science. Therefore, my college degree was mostly based on pest management and I found insecticide resistance most interesting. This was the impetus for seeking an advanced degree in this area."
Inceoglu was awarded two separate scholarships to study insecticide resistance in the U.S. His research of prominent laboratories in this area landed him in the Hammock laboratory in 1996. "Bruce was my major professor and I completed my Ph.D. in his laboratory in 2002," Inceoglu said. "My thesis was isolation and characterization of insect selective toxins from the venom of scorpions and Dr. Hammock had just received a sizable sample of venom of a South African scorpion, well known for its highly toxic properties. The insect selective toxins were highly sought after at the time because Dr. Hammock developed the technology to engineer these small peptides into the genome of an insect selective virus, a baculovirus. The genetically modified baculoviruses are much faster in killing the pest insects owing to the toxin being produced as the virus infects the host larvae and replicates within."
"Although unexpected, when I started characterizing the new venom we had, we found no insect selective peptide toxins in it," Inceoglou recalled. "Instead we identified a whole new class of peptides that affect mammalian ion channels." To make his work easier, he tried and obtained the live scorpion specimens imported from South Africa. "I do not think they are available for sale now but at the time I was able to get together a few dozens of these animals. I periodically milked the venom from these scorpions which enabled me to have a consistent supply of venom. "
"Currently we are not working on scorpion venoms," Inceoglu says, "but the technology developed by Dr. Hammock remains as one of the more innovative approaches to pest control."
Meanwhile, neuropathic pain research emanating from UC Davis continues to be spotlighted, as well it should be. It affects some 100 million Americans alone, but even more worldwide.
- Discover Magazine 100 Top Stories of 2015
- Discover Magazine: Key Piece of the Pain Puzzle Is Solved
- PNAS article
- UC Davis News Story: Groundbreaking Research on Neuropathic Pain
- Faculty 1000 Honor
Scorpions--to fear or to revere?
The Bohart Museum of Entomology's open house last Sunday drew visitors of all ages who marveled at the scorpions glowing under ultraviolet light.
UC Davis entomology major Alexander Nguyen flashed a UV light on the critters as his audience watched in amazement.
Most--but not all--of the world's scorpions glow under ultraviolet light, says Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum, which houses more than seven million insect specimens.
Scorpions are not insects, but arachnids, the same as spiders. Ranging in size from 9 mm to 21 mm, scorpions have eight legs (arachnid alert!) and grasping claws that help conquer their prey. But it's their venom that kills. And all scorpions possess venom.
UC Davis entomologist Bruce Hammock and his lab made the news back in 2003 when they published a study that showed that scorpions produce two venoms: a pre-venom to deter predators and immobilize small prey, and then the good stuff, the powerful venom that's meant to kill.
It's like saving the best for last or waiting for the venom glands to pump and reload, so to speak.
So, why do they glow?
Scientists believe it's because of the fluorescent material found in the scorpion's hard outer covering.
"The fact that they glow serves no physiological function," said Bohart senior museum scientist Steve Heydon. "It's probably a quirk of chemical makeup."
Great quote..."a quirk of chemical makeup."